Monthly Archives: October 2011

Where Never Eagle Flew

Andrew and his older brother, 2nd Lt. RE Hardaway, shortly before the latter's departure to the Pacific war zone in early 1943

Recently I completed a short book with this title taken from the poem HIGH FLIGHT.  The book’s subject was the military career of my uncle, First Lieutenant Royden E. Hardaway who died on this date in 1943-killed in action. He was part of the 339th US army fighter squadron, a unit that was based on the island of Guadalcanal in 1943, a famous island prize, recently taken from the stubborn, hard-fighting Japanese.

At the time Army land-based pilots were deployed in six-week rotations-six-weeks in a combat zone and then six-weeks out, in the rear in some sort of less dangerous support duty. In his first combat rotation, earlier in 1943, Lt. Hardaway had flown a P-39, a plane found to be nearly useless in air combat against the more nimble and higher climbing Japanese Zero. The principal use of the P-39, like the German Stuka in Europe, was as a dive bomber attacking Japanese ground forces. At the time of his first combat rotation, the island of Guadalcanal was reasonably secure but there were a few scattered, starving, demoralized, enemy units who could have caused trouble for the now large US base. Army pilots such as Lt. Hardaway were “mopping up”, sent out to find and destroy them. Though this duty was not quite as exciting or glamorous as air combat, I suspect it had become routine at this point to put newly arrived pilots in the P-39s.

The experienced pilots got the good plane-the P-38, a plane first seen on the island in late November of 1942.  LT. Hardaway had just missed a big event when he arrived on “the canal” on April 19 for his first rotation. The day before, sixteen P-38s had been sent out to find a plane carrying Admiral Isokuru Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor and possibly the most famous and beloved military figure in the empire of Japan. The mission was a stunning success and all sixteen pilots returned to base. Though it was supposed to be top secret, news of this kind is hard to suppress.  Lt. Hardaway would likely have heard about it soon after he stepped onto the ground. He probably wondered if he would be soon be flying one of the new P-38s, a plane far superior to the P-39, a plane that had proven to be more than a match for the Japanese Zero.

In my book I had to use the words “likely” and “probably” a great deal simply because my uncle said so little about his duties and about the war in general in his letters. Mostly he fussed at the folks back home for their failure to write, discussed the news from home, card games that he had won, jokes that he had heard, and other “Mom and Pop” issues.  No, he couldn’t say much.  Men in the war zones were under strict orders to keep quiet about all things military. The folks back home would have to learn about how the war was going from newsreels, newspapers, and the “grapevine.” I suspect that about all that the family  in Lebanon and Nashville knew was that RE, their loved one, was posted somewhere in the Pacific (since his letters came through the official army post office in San Francisco). Each letter had a censor’s stamp.  And of course, he couldn’t have said a word about the exciting news being whispered around Guadalcanal on April 19.

Lt. Hardaway met his end a few months later as a part of the land-based army air forces supporting allied efforts to clear the remaining Solomon Islands of Japanese forces. This strategy was called “island hopping”, seizing islands, one after another, principally in order to build airfields. Many in our time have the fuzzy idea that the fighter pilots of the Pacific War were mostly Navy pilots operating from aircraft carriers.  No, most Pacific war pilots were land-based army pilots like Hardaway. Though the aircraft carriers had a vital role, a more permanent island airfield (most of the time) was a far, far cheaper and more practical alternative, especially when it came to bombers, which couldn’t operate on carriers at all. Some of Lt.Hardaway’s combat duties were, I suspect, to escort bombers over enemy targets and chase away or destroy enemy planes sent up to shoot the bombers down.

When the terrible news arrived in Tennessee, the family was told that RE died from a broken neck when his P-38 crash -landed on an island airfield in the Pacific. For many years that was all that we knew. In recent years I’ve been able to fill in some blanks, that the airfield was likely the “Munda” airfield on the island of New Georgia, a prize recently taken from the Japanese by hard-fighting US marine and army units. The 339th was not as yet based at that place, being still within range of the airfields of Guadalcanal, especially when auxiliary drop tanks were used by the P-38s. But the airfield at Munda was used only for emergency landings for damaged US planes. Recently I visited a World War Two museum in New Orleans. In one of the many exhibits I saw photos of crashed P-38s on the rugged Munda airfield. The caption below these photos explained how dangerous the place was and of how risky it was for a pilot to attempt a landing there. I couldn’t help but wonder if my uncles had flown one of the crashed planes shown in the fuzzy Black and white photos in that display.

Sometime in early April of 1943, after the completion of his stateside training just before “shipping out”, the newly commissioned Lt. Hardaway stopped off to visit the family in Lebanon. Other “Hardaway” relatives from Nashville made the trip to Lebanon to see him. Lots of photos were taken. My personal favorite is the one shown above with my fifteen-year-old father Andrew proudly posing with his big brother. It was to be their last time together.

Unlike most downed pilots, his remains were sent home, a fact that seems to support the truthfulness of the story of his death told to the family. Today we can visit his grave in the Cedar Grove Cemetery in Lebanon, Tennessee. We are very proud of him. He is not forgotten. On this day 68 years ago he gave his life for his country and for freedom. Because of his sacrifice and that of so many others in the war years, the world was rescued from a terrible tyranny. I look forward to meeting him and offering my thanks.

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THE VIETNAM WAR: A NECESSITY OR A MISTAKE? Part two

In the second view, one most likely to be heard here in the South, it is believed that our military could have won the war in a conventional sense if only the military had not been “hog-tied” by hesitant, fearful meddling politicians. Author Micheal Lind in his book VIETNAM;THE NECESSARY WAR rejects this point of view as well. He contends that things were really quite different, that Lyndon Johnson, having inherited a pretty muddled SE Asia situation from JFK, gave William Westmoreland a wide latitude to conduct the war as he saw fit. Westmoreland, however, didn’t fully understand the need for a low-intensity, long-term conflict in which American casualties should be kept to a minimum. He didn’t understand that Americans were not going to tolerate high casualties without the perception of major accomplishments in the field, which was accomplished with the blunting and eradication of the Vietcong in the so-called Tet Offensive in the Spring of 1968. But by then it was really too late, the acceptable level of US casualties had been reached and the Johnson presidency became, in a sense, just another casualty of the now protracted conflict.

The Vietnam war was not the “go for broke” endeavor that World War Two had been. As many military historians have reminded us, the lessons of any particular war cannot usually be transferred successfully to the next one. The Vietnam war was planned and directed primarily by veterans of World War Two. They had been unsatisfied with the stalemate in Korea and wanted an honest-to-God victory in Vietnam not fully realizing that they were again going to have to settle for what had occurred in Korea, that the cold war was an altogether different situation from World War Two, where decisive clear-cut victories and mass surrenders had been achieved.  “The Johnson Administration’s major error,” Lind writes, “was to acquiesce in General Westmoreland’s attrition-oriented strategy (one of inflicting vast numbers of enemy casualties-body counts to wear him down) which led to greater losses in American life than an alternate strategy emphasizing pacification might have done.” (p.261) The big mistake of the Johnson administration, according to Michael Lind, was not to restrain the military but just the opposite, to grant the generals in Vietnam too much latitude with the result that they exceeded the acceptable level of US casualties.

The center of gravity then, the key to the whole business was not the North Vietnamese body count but the US body count. The American public was the judge, and by 1968 the acceptable limit of casualties had been reached and the public consequently lost faith in the whole enterprise. Had the planners found a lower-cost strategy that kept the South intact until such a time as a treaty  could be signed, the public might have felt differently about leaving sufficient troops there to function indefinitely as a deterrent to further aggression as had been done in Korea. But the public had had enough. Once the acceptable limit of casualties had been exceeded, it was time to start looking for ways to “bring the boys home.” Though many disagreed with his methods, the Vietnam policy of the Richard Nixon presidency was all along this theme.

Was the Vietnam war lost simply because it kept US service persons occupied for so long, that the US public simply grew weary of our boys being stuck or bogged down in SE Asia with no end in sight? Not likely says Lind. We’ve had people in other places such as South Korea and Germany much longer. We STILL have troops in South Korea as I write this. The difference is simply that no American has died there as a result of Communist aggression in decades. We don’t mind expending treasure. We don’t mind long commitments. The blood is the problem.

We heard a great deal at the time about the US helping the South Vietnamese get to the point where they could defend their own country. This was part of the “folly” that Barbara Tuchman and other historians have pointed out many times. And in this regard they surely have a point. The ARVN forces were something of a joke and the US should never have put any faith whatever in them. Lind tells us that the effort was really up to the US anyway and the South Vietnamese forces were simply there to offer whatever assistance they could in the same manner that the South Korean forces had done years before. It wasn’t up to them, it was up to us. Essentially we were not merely assisting in a Vietnamese Civil War, we were waging a cold war against the Soviets, fighting them by proxy. The Soviets were assisting, training, and equipping the North Vietnamese. The US had to take a more active role than that in South Vietnam.

It is interesting to contrast the views of Michael Lind with those of historian Barbara Tuchman, who in her book THE MARCH OF FOLLY supports the predominant view of most historians and many today, particularly those of a more liberal political orientation, that the war in Vietnam was a mistake from the beginning and never really winnable in any sense-pure folly from the start. Her mentions of Soviet involvement are minimal. Yes, she admits, they aided the North, but Hanoi would have taken help from anyone. Their relationship was one of pure convenience. To her, the war was essentially a civil war and  Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist more than he was a Communist. He looked to Moscow for military and moral support only. Tuchman rarely mentions the Korean war and never seems to consider the obvious fact that the US “lost” and South Vietnam fell simply because we “brought the boys home” unlike what had been done in Korea where we left enough troops as a deterrent. She does agree with Lind that our faith in the South Vietnam government was unrealistic or “folly.” She dismisses the admonitions of leaders like Henry Kissinger who worried about US credibility and the wider global context of Soviet expansionism.  The “domino theory” to her was as a foolish paranoia.  Indeed, the US “betrayed itself” in Vietnam, in her view, over and over again and the whole business amounted to nothing more than a terrible waste of US lives and treasure.

Michael Lind disagrees. To him the war was no more an exercise in folly or foolishness than the Korean War had been. Our intervention in SE Asia was worth a try but in employing strategies and tactics unsuitable for the situation, the US, in short, blew it. The goal to “unite” Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh was no more important, romantic, or interesting than the goal of North Korea to “unite” Korea.  Indeed, the tactics of William Westmoreland during the Johnson administration, he asserts, simply raised the US body count to a level that the American public found intolerable making it impossible for his successor Richard Nixon to do anything other than try to find some way to make a decent exit, or “peace with honor.” And when US troops did finally leave, the US could only hope against hope that the South Vietnamese forces could defend their nation when the inevitable invasion from the North occurred.  When South Vietnam did finally  collapse in April, 1975 few were surprised.

The fundamental difference in perspective between the two authors is simply this: Lind insists that the war be placed in its geopolitical cold war context. Tuchman dismisses this as foolish paranoia. In reality, she insists, the US was simply taking sides in a local SE Asia quarrel, sticking it’s nose in where it had no real business. I couldn’t find a single instance where she uses the term “proxy war.” Lind reminds us of what followed, that Moscow took encouragement from the US abandonment of SE Asia and, in a renewed spirit of optimism pursued greater adventures worldwide eventually resulting in the disastrous overreach in Afghanistan in the late seventies. Had the US held firm in Vietnam, this likely wouldn’t have occurred.  Having come to the not-so-illogical conclusion that the US had abandoned the cold war, the Soviets felt freer than ever to embark on new adventures. Ms. Tuchman mentions none of this.

Another difference is simply that Ms. Tuchman represents an example of the “enlightened” US intelligentsia who, in turning against US policy developed an indulgent and at times, tragically sympathetic view toward Communism in general. She strays from this general view only once.  In commenting on the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 she admits: “Perhaps the greatest folly was Hanoi’s-to fight so steadfastly for thirty years for a cause that became a brutal tyranny when it was won.”(p. 374) To this admission Lind, I suspect, would simply roll his eyes and request that she and her fellow “enlightened” isolationist colleagues take off their Communist rose-colored glasses. Wake up, he would say, this is how Communism works, simply  their “modus operandi.” It is a repressive one-party system where dissent is not tolerated.  North Vietnam did not “BECOME a brutal tyranny” when the South collapsed. Throughout much of his book he goes to great pains to explain how the regime of North Vietnam had been a brutal tyranny from the start. But this is all that Ms. Tuchman will admit. She says nothing of the “killing fields” of Cambodia or of any further Soviet expansionism or misdeeds that followed shortly thereafter. Her focus is upon US “folly” and misbehavior.

This remains a difficult and largely unresolved subject. One must be humble about any opinions as to the matter. Both Lind and Tuchman make good arguments. If one is convinced that all the presidents involved were basically on the right track and that Soviet expansionism needed to be challenged, then Mr. Lind’s view is the one you take even though he is a bit fuzzy, in my estimation, as to how the US could have kept South Vietnam afloat without incurring an unacceptable level of US casualties.

If you are convinced that the US involvement in the Vietnam war was just a huge mistake from the very beginning, that all the presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon were misguided and misinformed and that Soviet expansionism across the globe, the “domino theory” and all that was simply a paranoid myth, a huge “red herring”, then Ms. Tuchman’s view is the one for you.

Though it is problematic here and there, I personally lean toward Mr. Lind’s view. Ms. Tuchman, overly simplistic, focuses far too much on the nationalistic aspect of the conflict while ignoring or minimizing it’s geopolitical context. Nevertheless I’m open minded and will continue investigating the subject. The best part of it all is this: though Vietnam remains Communist today,(more or less, they’ve become much more like the Chinese economically) the Soviet Union with it’s pernicious one-party system, state controlled economy, and network of Gulags or slave labor camps where those who ran afoul of the “party” would be sent and, in time, disappear, is now an unhappy memory. Twenty years ago it collapsed.

Perhaps we should think of the Vietnam war as simply one campaign (of many) in the cold war that went bad. It was not so much a mistake as it was simply a defeat. It was better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all. It is rare indeed for any victor in a major war to win every battle or campaign. There were defeats and disasters for the US in World War Two. But in the end, we won.  The Vietnam and Korean war veterans amongst us can be assured that they did their part in achieving the ultimate victory that came in the late nineteen-eighties just as much as those of the Greatest Generation who gave us victory in the nineteen-forties. It just took a little longer.

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